Aya Academy of Excellence

Inch Deep, Mile Wide: Teaching Bart Simpson

My favorite Simpson clip of all-time is the one with Bart’s class receiving a full-day of recess when his teacher, Mrs. Edna Krabappel, couldn’t find the teacher edition of the textbook.  Message – some teachers do not know much of the material they teach.  What is the effect on students when a teacher’s depth of content knowledge is limited? 

In reflection, my best teachers were those who never cracked open the textbook.  Mrs. Ralph, my eleventh grade high school teacher had so many personal stories of the Civil Rights Movement, that at times, I forgot she wasn’t a history teacher.  Like my other accomplished english teachers – I went to school before the ‘language arts’ movement – Mrs. Ralph infused passion into her classroom instruction.  I never doubted Mrs. Bryant’s knowledge of grammar – her lessons on etymology are still with me today.  Just yesterday, I excitedly taught my social studies students how the  term unitary relates to dictatorship by pointing out that the prefix uni means one and that based on how they’ve already characterized dictatorships that the two words are linked.  The students constructed the meaning of dictator to include – dictators only allow one party, one way of thinking and only one person or group of persons perspectives.   Mrs. Bryant’s lessons are a blessing to my teaching today. 

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The impact of the excellent teachers I was blessed with as a student is evident in how I teach just not on what I teach.  Mr Garrett, my middle school math teacher reigned supreme.  He knew the subject so well that he could adeptly pinpoint where we were in error so that he could explain the steps we needed to take to solve math problems.  He looked over our work EVERYDAY and used it the next day to tailor instruction.  This was sound practice that preceded RTI.  Before Mr. Garrett, I never considered myself ‘good’ in math but his ability to teach it well made me ‘good’ in math.  To this day, I credit him with my near perfect score of a 98% on the math Course II regents exam. A lesser adept teacher wouldn’t have had the ability to impart the curriculum to me and that achievement therefore would not have been realized.

So why aren’t we all the best?  can’t we all bring in the passion of Mrs. Ralph, the content depth of Mrs. Bryant and the inspiring work ethic of Mr. Garrett?  I believe that a student will flourish in a learning environment that is safe with a teacher that is skilled in the art of teaching and possesses both passion and depth of knowledge in their content area.  My teachers loved their content.  I couldn’t imagine Mr. Stallone, my woodworking teacher, leading my class in math or Mr. Taylor, my earth science teacher, instructing the string’s section of the school orchestra.  The best teachers have their content so  tightly under their belt that they can focus on the art of delivering instruction to reach and teach each individual student.

Does this mean that teachers can only be well-versed in one subject alone?  Certainly not, teachers can and should expand their depth of knowledge in more than one area even if they only teach one subject.  When teachers can integrate other disciplines into their instruction, as Mrs. Ralph often did, instruction is much more engaging.  And for those who develop depth into more than one content area, teaching more than one subject is to the great benefit of their students.  But I fear, that some teachers are in too deep waters.  Who hasn’t heard the concern of middle and high school math teachers who believe that the academic gap in students is correlated to many elementary teachers not mastering math content?  Elementary teachers are expected to be a jack of all trades and for some, mastering math was not expected.  Over recent years, in response, districts have placed math coaches and expert math pull-out teachers in their elementary schools. 

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In our hearts,  all people desire to be good at what we do and within a teacher’s heart, she desire’s to bring out the good of all her students.  As they ask in New York, ‘What’s Good?”  What’s good is a teacher who possesses a passion for teaching, who is well versed in strategies to accommodate all learners, who establishes a safe learning environment and who knows more than the next page in the textbook. Afterall, who would ever want to be Edna K.?  Better yet, who would want Edna K. as their child’s teacher?


If You Fail, I Fail

I had a parent utter similar words to a teammate.  As he awaited his turn for a parent teacher conference meeting with our team, he walked through the hallways and looked at the assignment spreadsheets peppering the walls.  The class section his son was in had a slew of failures.  To him, the value of instruction and capability of the teacher was tied to the academic results of the students.  Their failure was the teacher’s failure.

How much ownership of student failure should a teacher ‘own?’  Is the teacher accountable for the outcome of her students or just her own personal actions? Can a teacher claim professional success if her students fail?

I once heard a principal say that the teacher ‘owns’ their children.  I have also heard the collective groans from the staff in response.  What stymies teachers from being accountable for the grades their students receive?  Below is a list of issues that impede teachers from ownership of student progress and the “Now What” steps needed to reverse these conditions to enable teachers to become more accountable.

Barrier #1: Academic and Ability Gap
I played the violin in junior high school….poorly.  My skills were completely atrocious and yet, my music teacher was expected that I and my classmates were ready each winter and spring to perform at recitals. This scenerio is true for all teachers.  They are expected to perform on achievement tests, meeting or exceeding stadards, regardless of where they start. 

Now What: Differientiation
My music teacher grouped her students by instrument type – strings, wind, etc. and also by ability.  Students like myself, played parts of the piece with less complex instrumentation.  In doing so, the collective sounds of the entire class was beautiful.  Schools need to support teachers in imparting differientiation.  Collections of resources, activities and strategies need to be compiled and on tap for employment in the classroom.

Barrier#2: Effort
GIGO – Garbage in, Garbage Out.  Simply put, students who try harder are apt to learn more. Some students put forth less effort.  I played the violin poorly because I did not practice at home.  My family thought the sounds coming from the strings of my instrument were comical and it was a source of embarassament.  I stopped practicing.  Some students stop trying out of fear.  Others stop trying because they deem the learning is irrelevant.  Others are apathetic.

Now What: Character Education
Within the school culture and classroom environment high expectations are needed.  Students must know that they are responsible for meeting standards of excellence.  Students need to set personal goals for improvement as they aspire to met these goals they need to track their grades.  As each grade is assigned, they need to write a reflection explaining what they learned from that assignment and how the grade was earned.

Tantamount to setting high expectations is providing a learning experience with relevant, engaging activities and content.  I have seen many a teacher struggle with student apathy in a class enviornment in which the teacher spent the class period lecturing.  GIGO.  Droll, monotonous teacher centered classes are not engaging.  Teachers must turn the learning over to the students if they want to build accountability in their classrooms. Schools need to cultivate an environment in which a grade is earned and a source of pride.  The ‘at least I passed’ attitude is killing our kids.  Feeding the beast of that attitude are schools which set a ‘lowest’ minimum grade.  What messgae is sent to kids if they know they can do 25% of the work and still ear 50% on a report card?  Our kids are savvy enough to know that they can work the system to just get by if we allow them to. 

Schools which succeed make the effort of involving their parents in the learning dynamic.  By keeping parents informed of what they can do to provide support at home, schools enable families to play their part. Setting the tone in the beginning of the year by requesting volunteer hours, hosting parent institutes and welcoming classroom visitations is crucial.

Barrier #3: Out of Control Learning Environments
I am a sucker for ‘teacher’ movies – Stand and Deliver, Freedom Writers, To Sir With Love, etc. One of my all-time favorites is Lean on Me.  The transformation of a failing school, to a successful school impacts the lives of students, teachers and parents.  When schools are safe, organized, clean and academically stimulating everyone benefits. Conversly, when they are not, everyone suffers.  Staff apathy, student failure and community instability ensue.

Now What: New Broom Sweeps Clean
I am not a proponent of slash and burn employment practices or district gerrymandering.  I have seen schools ‘turn around’ by redrawing district lines and ‘getting rid’ of troublesome students.  In recent times we have seen that the ‘bold’ move of firing teachers who are deemed ineffective celebrated as a move to improve teaching and learning. I adore the words of Audrey Hepburn:

“People, more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed.”

I don’t believe in ousting people – students nor teachers.  I believe that it is our job to teach everyone – parents, teachers and students on how to effectively participate in the learning process.  The ‘new broom’ is new training, new opportunities for growth, new development of partnerships.

Over the summer, I crafted a 30 page class manual.  The exercise helped me explicity teach my students how our learning enviornment is designed.  It explained behavior expectations, listed learning tools and outlined grading practices.  It is a living document that allows for flexibility to meet challenges as they occur.  It helped me to define how I would meet the needs of my students by anticipating conditions that recur each year.  Teachers constantly grapple with what to do with the student who works ahead, the student who is belligerent, the student who turns in work below expectation, etc.  By designing a class with these challenges in mind, I nipped in the bud the issues I have year-after-year battled.  Schools must get new brooms.  The old ways may not effectively solve the new problems and in some cases the old ways never even worked.

As a school, teachers, staff and administration must be willing to openly dialogue about what needs they share and brainstorm what ought to be done to meet those needs.  Open dialogue means that everyone comes to the table to create a fluid plan that bars the words ‘we can’t’ and that seeks to have all stakeholders openly share in improved methods. Leadership from ‘the top’ is a model that is being quickly replaced by flat management in which all stakeholders have an authentic role in crafting the processes and direction of the learning environment.

Children do not learn in chaos.  Children do not learn from apathetic teachers.  Teachers need to be renewed, revived,  and redeemed.  Schools need to be reclaimed.

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